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Pruning fruit trees is one of the most important activities that you can do to ensure the health, long life and productivity of your home orchard. It is also one of the first outdoor activities of the new year that you will probably be doing.
I always look forward to getting out and getting the blood flowing after a winter of relative inactivity. There are five general reasons for pruning apple trees, pear, peach, plum, cherry, and other trees. Below is a short discussion of each.
Branches that cross (and touch) one another are undesirable and one of the offending branches should be removed. Generally you should remove the smaller of the two, but take a look at shape and growth pattern as well. Remove the one that is least likely to be viable and productive in the long term.
Very long spindly branches should be cut back to the point where they are more in line with the rest of the tree and are able to bear the weight of developing fruit.
Pear trees are notorious for sending up a few thin weak branches that grow 6-10 feet in one year. These branches often grow close to and parallel to the main trunk of the tree. Branches like this should be removed entirely.
Low hanging branches that interfere with mowing and other maintenance are opportunities to damage your tree or get someone hurt. remove or cut back any that will interfere with mowing, maintenance and ease of access to the tree during the growing season.
As leaves and fruit begin
to develop, you will find that branches get heavier and hang lower
during the summer. Take this into consideration when pruning.
If you keep a good sized area mulched under your trees, low hanging branches become less of an issue for you. It also reduces competition from grass and weeds and helps retain soil moisture. I try to keep an area mulched under my trees that is about the same diameter as the branches of the trees themselves. This diameter is referred to as the "Drip Line".
The bigger the tree becomes over the years, the less realistic this becomes, especially if you will plant standard sized trees, but it's still a good idea to keep an area clear and mulched beneath your trees.
Good air circulation in the center of a tree is very important to promote good healthy fruit growth, and to reduce the occurrence of diseases that rely on dampness to develop. Some trees grow lots and lots of small twigs (cherries for example), which seem to completely fill the space between the main branches.
If you get under your tree in the summer and can't see a bit of sky here and there through the tree's canopy, it will be time to thin some of the interior branches the following spring. Never remove more than 25% of a trees branches or twigs when thinning. Usually much less will get the job done.
On occasion a tree will grow lopsided and you will have to remove or trim back some branches to balance the tree out. This is particularly important if the trunk of the tree leans far to one side. Of course, it's better to never let your trees lean that far in the first place. The appearance of a healthy fruit tree should be even all the way around.
If a branch or branches on one side grow taller or longer than on another side, you should even them up. This is important not just for the appearance of the tree, but also for it's long term health. An unbalanced tree will be far more susceptible to wind damage, even blowing down or breaking off.
Damage can be caused by too much crop weight on one side as well. Besides that, a well shaped fruit tree is just more pleasing to the eye than a poorly maintained one.
The reasons for pruning fruit trees I have listed so far should normally
be done in early spring, but if you find a branch or
limb that has died, is diseased, or has suffered some other heavy
damage, it's a good idea to go ahead and remove the dead or damaged
material when you find it.
Some diseases can spread quickly and should be removed right away. Fire blight on apple trees for example has to be cut out immediately so it doesn't spread further down the branches. Diseased branches risk infecting additional branches or even other trees, so make sure to move all of your trimmings well away from your orchard.
If you can, I recommend burning them to assure that the diseases are destroyed. You should always clean your pruning equipment with alcohol after pruning diseased or dead branches.
NOTE: Not all diseases require pruning, some can be treated with a spraying routine. If you do have to prune diseased trees, it's a good idea to go ahead and spray as well to help control the disease from spreading further.
There is one additional reason for pruning fruit trees. If you own property that has mature established fruit trees that have either been neglected for years or pruned incorrectly, you will need to do some pretty heavy pruning during the first 2 to 3 years to revitalize these old timers.
This kind of pruning is more like drastic surgery and you will probably have to do some of each type of pruning already mentioned. Dead, diseased and damaged limbs have to be removed, crossed limbs and low hanging branches have to go, thinning will almost certainly have to be done, and the general overall appearance of the trees will likely have to be balanced out.
Years of neglect probably can't be corrected in one round of pruning. It may take 2-3 years to get these trees back to prime conditions, but stick with it and be patient - the end result will be well worth it. Mature trees will reward you with big crops for your efforts in getting them back in shape.
Pruning fruit trees should be done using good quality, clean, sharp equipment. Depending on the size of your trees, you may need by-pass trimmers, limb loppers, a pruning saw or bow saw, an extension trimmer, or possibly even a chain saw. Keeping equipment clean prevents diseases from spreading one tree to another, and keeping your tools sharp assure a clean cut which heals quicker and causes less stress to your trees.
Cut branches cleanly and as close to the branch junction or trunk as you can. Never use anvil type trimmers, as they do too much damage to the bark and cambium layer underneath, where nutrients and water is carried. Anvil trimmers have one blade, which cut against a flat surface called an anvil. Always use bypass trimmers, which operate like a pair of scissors and cut cleanly from both sides of the branch.
Large branches that have to be sawed off, should be under cut on the bottom side by about 1/4 of the diameter, before cutting through on the top. This prevents the bark from ripping away down the trunk as gravity pulls the branch down as you cut through.
A word about painting branch stubs when pruning fruit trees. There are two schools of thought about painting over the pruned end of a branch stub. Some folks swear that you should paint tar over the ends to protect the trees from disease, until the bark can grow over the cut. Others say that painting the cuts with tar can seal in moisture and diseases, and promote infection and rot.
I've tried it both ways and have seen little difference in overall performance of the trees. If you think you need to paint the ends, I recommend using fibered roof tar (often called roof cement) to daub on the cuts. Personally, I haven't painted my trees after pruning for several years, and my unscientific opinion is that it isn't necessary, but...to each his own opinion.
Pruning fruit trees, when done properly, not only makes for healthier and more productive trees, but they will be visually much more attractive than if they were allowed to grow wild. Pruning your trees for the first time can be daunting, but the thing to remember is that your trees are forgiving, and will recover from nearly any pruning mistake. Just be sure to learn from those mistakes, so you don't repeat them.
Your fruit trees will reward you for proper pruning by producing bigger, healthier crops, for a longer number of years. Take your time when learning to prune your fruit trees, and it will become second nature to you after a couple of years.
Sources for Fruit Trees:
Here in Southern Indiana, I prune my fruit trees in mid February. Pruning is usually my first spring activity of the year, and coincides with what I call skunk week.
Around mid February, the local skunks break hibernation and start their mating activities. The males follow the females around "looking for love". They are so intent on what they are doing, that they don't pay much attention to anything else. Many of them are killed (or just scared) by cars when crossing roads. On my 15 mile morning drive to work, it's not unusual to see a half dozen skunk kills, or smell near misses, during that time. This all seems to happen and finish within a week to 10 days.
Skunk week is my reminder that it's time to prune my fruit trees!